antonio machado | la palabra en el tiempo

25 10 2008

Poetry Dispatch Nr. 256 | October 25, 2008

la palabra en el tiempo:

Norbert Blei

I never wanted fame,
nor wanted to leave my poems
behind in the memory of men…

Machado poems illuminate both darkness and day. I don’t know how else to describe his work except once you have found him and he has found you, his poems will broaden your spirit, put you in a place you want to be. The kind of feeling one experiences walking out of an ancient church into a starlit night.

Memory is valuable for one thing,
astonishing: it brings dreams back.

In Robert Bly’s magnificent translation, TIMES ALONE, Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, Wesleyan University Press, (1983), he notes in his introduction:

“His poetry secretes in itself the rhythm of the walker, When John Dos Passos, just out of college, traveled to see Machado in Segovia, he found an awkward man with a deep voice, “an old fashioned teacher,” dressed in a black, double-breasted suit, who walked for hours in Segovia and the countryside. When a person walks, he experiences objects one by one at a pace agreeable to the body. And every walk ends; sooner or later the walk is over and we are back home.”

Bly also notes Machado’s love for well-made things, something any writer can relate to:

Form your letters slowly and well:
making things well
is more important than making them.

Some excerpts from one of the selections included in TIMES ALONE:

“Fourteen Poems Chosen from ‘Moral Proverbs and Folk Songs’ “


Put out on the fields
a physical laborer, a thinker, and a poet.
You will see how the poet is enthusiastic
and silent, the thinker looks and thinks…
The laborer looks around, probably,
for blackberries and mushrooms.
Take them to the theatre,
and only the laborer isn’t bored.
The one who prefers what is alive
over what is made up
is the person who writes, dreams, or sings.
The head of the physical laborer
is full of fantasies.


It is good knowing that glasses
are to drink from;
the bad thing is not to know
what thirst is for.


You say nothing is created new?
Don’t worry about it, with the mud
of the earth, make a cup
from which your brother can drink.


Mankind owns four things
that are no good at sea:
rudder, anchor, oars,
and the fear of going down.

Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz, known as Antonio Machado (July 26, 1875 – February 22, 1939) was a Spanish poet and one of the leading figures of the Spanish literary movement known as the Generation of ’98.

Machado was born in Seville one year after his brother Manuel. The family moved to Madrid in 1883 and both brothers enrolled in the Institución Libre de Enseñanza. During these years, and with the encouragement of his teachers, Antonio discovered his passion for literature.

While completing his Bachillerato in Madrid, economic difficulties forced him to take several jobs including working as an actor. In 1899 he travelled with his brother to Paris to work as translators for a French publisher. During these months in Paris he came into contact with the great French Symbolist poets Jean Moréas, Paul Fort and Paul Verlaine, and also with other contemporary literary figures, including Rubén Darío and Oscar Wilde. These encounters cemented Machado’s decision to dedicate himself to poetry.

In 1901 he had his first poems published in the literary journal ‘Electra’. His first book of poetry was published in 1903 with the title Soledades. Over the next few years he gradually amended the collection, removing some and adding many more, and in 1907 the definitive collection was published with the title Soledades. Galerías. Otros Poemas.

In the same year Machado was offered the job of Professor of French at the school in Soria. Here he met Leonor Izquierdo, daughter of the owners of the boarding house Machado was staying in. They were married in 1909: he was 34; Leonor was 15. Early in 1911 the couple went to live in Paris where Machado read more French literature and studied philosophy. In the summer however Leonor was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis and they returned to Spain. On 1 August 1912 Leonor died, just a few weeks after the publication of Campos de Castilla. Machado was devastated and left Soria, the city that had inspired the poetry of Campos, never to return. He went to live in Baeza, Andalucia, where he stayed until 1919. Here he wrote a series of poems dealing with the death of Leonor which were added to a new (and now definitive) edition of Campos de Castilla published in 1916 along with the first edition of Nuevas canciones.

While his earlier poems are in an ornate, Modernist style, with the publication of “Campos de Castilla” he showed an evolution toward greater simplicity, a characteristic that was to distinguish his poetry from then on.

Between 1919 and 1931 Machado was Professor of French in Segovia. He moved here to be nearer to Madrid, where Manuel lived. The brothers would meet at weekends to work together on a number of plays, the performances of which earned them great popularity. It was here also that Antonio had a secret affair with Pilar Valderrama, a married woman with three children, to whom he would refer in his work by the name Guiomar. In 1932 he was given the post of professor at the “Instituto Calderón de la Barca” in Madrid

When Francisco Franco launched his coup d’état in July 1936, launching the Spanish Civil War, Machado was in Madrid. The coup was to separate him forever from his brother Manuel who was trapped in the Nationalist (Francoist) zone, and from Valderrama who was in Portugal. Machado was evacuated with his elderly mother and uncle to Valencia, and then to Barcelona in 1938. Finally, as Franco closed in on the last Republican strongholds, they were obliged to move across the French border to Collioure. It was here, on 22 February 1939 that Antonio Machado died, just three days before his mother. In his pocket was found his last poem, “Estos días azules y este sol de infancia”.

Machado is buried in Collioure where he died; Leonor is buried in Soria. Geoffrey Hill has hailed him as Montale’s ‘grand equal’. His phrase “the two Spains” — one that dies and one that yawns — referring to the left-right political divisions that led to the Civil War, has passed into Spanish and other languages.

Machado’s poetic evolution has strong links to larger European trends in the same period. He turned away from the hermetic esthetic principles of post-symbolism and cultivated the dynamic openness of social realism. Like such French æsthetes as Verlaine, Machado began with a fin-de-siècle contemplation of his sensory world, portraying it through memory and the impressions of his private world. And like his socially conscious colleagues of the Generation of 1898, he emerged from his solitude to contemplate Spain’s historical landscape with a sympathetic yet unindulgent eye.

His poetic work begins with the publication of Soledades, in 1903. In this short volume many personal links which will characterize his later work are noticeable. In “Soledades, Galerías. Otras poemas.”, published in 1907, his voice becomes his own. The most typical feature of his personality is the antipathic, softly sorrow tone that can be felt even when he describes real things or common themes of the time, for example abandoned gardens, old parks or fountains, places which he approaches via memory or dreams.

After Machado’s experience with the introspective poetry of his first period, he withdrew from the spectacle of his conflictive personality and undertook to witness the general battle of the “two Spains,” each one struggling to gain the ascendancy.

In 1912 he published “Campos de Castilla”, a collection of poems lyricising the beauty of the Castilian countryside. Just as the poet’s own personality revealed mutually destructive elements in the earlier Galerías and Soledades, so too did the Cain-Abel myth, interpreted in “La Tierra de Alvargonzález” later attest to the factions in Spain that tore at each other and shredded the national fabric in an effort finally to restore unity. At the same time, other poems projected Castilian archetypes that evoked emotions like pathos (“La mujer manchega”—”The Manchegan Woman”), revulsion (“Un criminal”), and stark rapture (“Campos de Soria”).

In 1917 various poems were added to “Campos”, including a group of poems written in Baeza about the death of his young wife, a series of short reflective poems, often resembling popular songs or sayings, called “Proverbios y Cantares”, and e series of “Elogios”, dedicated to characters such as Rubén Dario or Federico García Lorca who had been influential in his life.

Machado’s later poems are a virtual anthropology of Spain’s common people, describing their collective psychology, mores, and historical destiny. He achieves this panorama through basic myths and recurrent, eternal patterns of group behavior. He developed these archetypes in Campos de Castilla (“Castilian Plains”) in such key poems as “La tierra de Alvargonzález,” and “Por tierras de España”, which are based on Biblical inheritance stories. The metaphors of this second period use geographical and topographical allusions that frame powerful judgments about socio-economic and moral conditions on the Peninsula.

His next book, “Nuevas canciones” (New Songs), published in 1924, and begins the last period of his work.

The complete work of his poetry, “Poesías Completas” was published in 1928 and contains his work “Poesias de Guerra” (Poems of War), outstanding the elegy to the death of Federico Garcia Lorca, called “Ocurrió en Granada” (It occurred in Granada).

Perhaps Machado’s most famous work is two verses from “Proverbios y cantares XXIX” in Campos de Castilla.

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar

This however, is but an excerpt of a longer and less hopeful poem. The popular Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat interprets this poem as a song that has brought Machado’s work greater diffusion. Serrat added some verses so that the song speaks about a poet dying far away from his country.

The Puerto Rican novelist Giannina Braschi references Machado’s poetry in the contemporary novel Yo-Yo Boing! during a fight scene between a Cuban nationalist and a Puerto Rican independista who are arguing over the topics of dignity and national identity:

–Qué es la dignidad?

–La medida de la libertad.

–Quiero decir, quién es más fuerte, la isla que se vende y come bien, o la que se mantiene erecta, y se muere de hambre y de soledad.

–Cuál es más libre?

–Ninguna de las dos es libre. Todo pertenece. Soledad te acompaña, viajero. Pero como decía Don Antonio Machado, donde hay vino, bebe vino, y si no hay vino, chico, qué te cuesta, tómate el agua fresca.

Major publications

  • * Soledades (1903)
  • * Soledades. Galerías. Otros poemas (1907)
  • * Campos de Castilla (1912)
  • * Poesías completas (1917)
  • * Nuevas canciones (1924)
  • * Poesías completas (1936, cuarta edición)
  • * Juan de Mairena (1936)